The Science(?) of Bio-Dynamics with Tom Mansell
Over on The New York Cork Report science writer Tom Mansell has had the idea to inject a little hands on science into the ongoing internet debate over biodynamics in the vineyard. For the next few weeks Tom will be taking the writings of both Rudolph Steiner and Nicolas Joly and visiting vineyards, conducting experiments and talking to vignerons to see what is working and perhaps get at the why. i thought this the best idea i’ve heard in a while regarding the subject and i decided to interview him. Enjoy!
1. First off some introduction, who are you and what are your qualifications for undertaking this project?
I’m a PhD student in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell.
I have been writing about the science of wine for over a year and a
half now, starting with my own wine blog, Ithacork
(http://ithacork.com), and eventually landing a gig as the Science
Editor at the New York Cork Report about a year ago.
As for my qualifications, I rely on the scientific literature to back
up any statements I make. As a scientist myself, I critically
evaluate evidence and come up with a conclusion. Facts are my
2. What made you decide to take on this topic?
My first tour of a vineyard that is currently moving towards Demeter
certification was a huge motivator. I heard some things on that tour
that were PROFOUNDLY unscientific. I had heard of BioD before, but
passing around the horn manure (and observing others’ reactions)
really convinced me that people actually believed in this stuff.
I had been considering writing some things on this for a long time
when Lenn approached me about writing a series of pieces on the
science of biodynamics for the NYCR. The NYCR has a much larger
audience that includes lots of people in the wine trade, so it’s a
better medium for me.
3. It seems talking biodynamics is a surefire way to get people angry on both sides. How are you expecting to defuse this?
People are very polarized on the subject. The more rationally-minded
tend to write off every element of biodynamics as spiritual and
astrological mumbo-jumbo without considering that some practices may
in fact have merit, in spite of the reasoning given by Steiner et al.
On the other hand, BioD defenders use some language that flies in the
face of modern science, yet want to be taken seriously. And it seems
to them that every farmer who is not biodynamic is part of the machine
of industrial agriculture. As with all things, there’s got to be a
middle ground between these extreme viewpoints. That’s what I seek to
I haven’t really even written anything yet (just stated some facts
about labeling, etc.) and already there is a full-blown debate in the
comments section of the first article. It’s clearly touched a nerve.
Given the sensitive nature of the subject, I have to make sure my
facts are right.
4. You’ve read both Steiner and Joly (and I’m assuming some Demeter literature). what is your impression that you get from the readings?
Their tone is very anti-establishment, anti-science. They appeal to a
sense of nostalgia (i.e., back before we had industrial farming,
things were better, etc.). I have to say I was surprised by the overt
amount of astrology and spiritual language that dominates the texts,
especially with Joly writing in the present day.
They write with authority, yet their only references to observable
phenomena are purposely vague at worst or pseudoscientific at best.
Maria Thun, creator of the biodynamic calendar, does provide some data
about crops harvests on root, fruit, leaf, flower days, etc. but does
I have not seen any quantitative data about grapes from her yet. I’m
in the process of reading some of her works more closely.
5. How are you going to go about the study?
The same way I go about writing any piece. Research, research,
research. I’ve got primary sources in the form of Steiner, Joly,
Thun, etc. and I have access to scientific literature as well. As I
said, my job is really to synthesize the ideas already out there and
come to some sort of conclusion. In this case, to evaluate the
gravitational effect of the moon on, say, racking, you can do that
math. We know the mass of the moon and its gravitational effects on
water in the form of tides. Do “tides” happen in wine barrels?
6. A lot of folks claim that bio-dynamics works merely because it puts people in the field/vineyard more, and that positive results are merely a reflection of this. What do you say about this, or is it still too early to comment?
I used to hold this idea, too. It’s perfectly possible that this
quasi-placebo effect may improve some vineyards. However, I believe
that when we start getting away from observable phenomena and real
science and delve into the spitirual and unscientific, it hurts
everyone, from growers to winemakers to consumers. My intent here is
not to influence vineyard management policy or to change minds. My
overall intent is to educate consumers and to get people to think more
critically about what they’re drinking.
7. Which winemakers/farmers (I don’t know if you are going to talk to Bio-D people outside of wine) are you going to be talking with? Will you provide some time for skeptics as well?
In general I will focus on wine personalities, and since it’s the New
York Cork Report, I will be talking to some New York growers and
scientists. There are organic (or “as organic as possible”) producers
in both Long Island and the Finger Lakes (my home base), so I’d like
to talk to them about some of the challenges of organic/biodynamic
farming. I think organic has to be a part of this discussion as well.
8. I assume you’re familiar with the Biodynamics is a Hoax website that Stuart Smith has put up. What do you think about it? Do you think it has helped the debate?
I think the site is great. Mr. Smith takes a rational approach to
thinking about the problem, which I love, but his tone is
exceptionally confrontational. I mean, it’s right there in the title.
However, I think this leads people to think that he has come to this
conclusion without fully considering the facts (in spite of the blog
being a work in progress) and puts people off his arguments in an ad
hominem way. It’s a classic logical fallacy to say that just because
a person may have an agenda that the arguments he presents are not
But speaking of the confrontational, Steiner et al. really started the
fight with their anti-modern science rhetoric.
The posts in the series will go up on
Thursdays on the NYCR for the next several weeks: